MTV News Is Trying Very Hard to Reinvent Itself

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1515 Broadway, home of MTV, on Times Square in New York City. 

"If you put out good work, traffic comes to you."

MTV News, which began as Kurt Loder-hosted show The Week in Rock in 1987, all but pioneered the idea that pop stars and politicians could co-exist within the same editorial space. Now, as MTV continues to struggle with its transition into the digital world, that perpendicular mix of coverage can be found almost everywhere online, including sites that compete with the channel for the attention of teens and twentysomethings, like Vice and Buzzfeed. As MTV president Sean Atkins rethinks the channel’s overall strategy, MTV News is being reinvented along with it.

"How do you restore the urgency that I felt about MTV when I was 12?" asks MTV News vice president and editorial director Dan Fierman, who came to the channel in October from the now-shuttered Grantland, where he was editorial director. Fierman, 40, wants to "start with the core of the brand -- music-focused pop culture and politics news." He’s also hiring younger writers and personalities from the online world, with a plan to focus on the kind of in-depth writing that has traditionally been associated with publications aimed at an older audience.

MTV News isn't easing into that transition, having made about two dozen new hires, including Jessica Hopper, a veteran of Pitchfork’s print magazine and the web site Rookie, now Editorial director of music at MTV News. Today the site is announcing more new staffers, including respected music critic Charles Aaron and former Grantland contributor Alex Pappademas, who will be the executive editor of MTV.com. The web site doesn't plan to stop covering celebrity news, it will also run pieces that are longer and more idiosyncratic than most of what it’s previously done. "We’re using Grantland as the proof of model," Hopper says. 

The retooling of MTV News comes at a time of turmoil for the channel. Ratings in its 12-to-34 target demographic are down about 40 percent over the last five years, according to Nielsen. (Most channels that target a young audience have seen their ratings decline, to some extent.) Add to that descent the loss of several key executives, including Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music and Logo Group, and MTV President Stephen Friedman. MTV’s corporate parent has its own issues: Viacom’s profit fell 10 percent and revenues declined 6 percent, according to financial results reported Feb. 9, and its stock price has dropped from more than $72 a share in April 2015 to about $35 at the end of yesterday (Feb. 10) amid criticism of the performance of CEO and Chairman Philippe Dauman.

MTV News has always been the serious part of a network devoted to pop culture, interspersing stories about politics with entertainment news that Loder would cover with his signature deadpan.

In 2014, eighteen years after its launch on the web, MTV gave its news division a "digital-first approach," to focus on creating online content while also supplying video programming for MTV, MTV2, mtvU, and MTV Live. MTV News now has 40 million unique visitors per month worldwide, double the number it had two years ago. "We want to take these stories, whether they’re music stories or pop culture stories, to all of our distribution points," which include a channel on Snapchat Discover, says Kristin Frank, executive vice president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Connected Content Group. Content is re-edited so it works for television or online video. "The reason we’ve been so successful," Frank says, "is that we’ve been ‘platform intentional.’"

Frank and Fierman are focusing on hiring young creators, who can write for the online site but also appear on television or perhaps host a podcast. "Our goal is to have the youngest, most diverse staff," Fierman says. "Either you’re The New York Times and you have dozens of people flooding New Hampshire [for the primary] or you need one great voice to lead your coverage." Among the new hires are several political writers, including Ana Marie Cox, who founded the political blog Wonkette.

The question for MTV News is whether presenting more sophisticated writing will be a better business for it than it was for Grantland, which was widely acclaimed but reportedly only narrowly profitable. As an example of the kind of work MTV News wants to do, Hopper points to the critic Greg Tate’s essay about David Bowie’s influence on black music, which puts the star in context "in our electric church’s Afrofuturist pantheon of demiurges." "The fact that we could publish Greg Tate on that was in itself a success," Hopper says. "If you put out good work, traffic comes to you."

That goes against the obsession with traffic that has come to define online media. But focusing on the same stories as other sites means "you’re swimming in the gigantic sea of fish but you’re not leading the conversation," Fierman says. "We’re leading the conversation."